SA’s remarkable black war heroes
Two South African prisoners of war went on to 'fight' another day after Tobruk fell to Germany’s Afrika Korps in the Second World War 74 years ago this month - but on opposite sides of the conflict, writes Michael Morris.
Under cover of darkness in the early hours of June 20, 1942, General Erwin Rommel wheeled his Panzer forces to face the eastern perimeter of the strategic Libyan port of Tobruk, a key deep-water harbour just 150km from the border of British-held Egypt.
Within less than two hours of a fierce pre-dawn artillery barrage, coupled with aerial bombing, some 100 German and Italian tanks broke through the outer defences of the sprawling garrison.
Confusion reigned among the 35 000 defenders as Rommel’s outflanking thrust had been so sudden. Then, in less than 12 hours, came Tobruk’s capitulation; the commander, South African General Hendrik Klopper, surrendered.
Klopper, who escaped from captivity in 1943, was later exonerated for the Tobruk disaster, but at the time his troops thought he’d caved in and booed when the Germans brought him to address them. Tobruk was the Allies’ second-worst disaster in the war thus far.
The North African surrender on June 21 ceded to the victors 2 000 vehicles, several thousand tons of fuel and rations and 33000 prisoners. Among them were 10 722 men of the Second South African Infantry Division. Of these, 1 200 were Native Military Corps volunteers. Two of them, Job Maseko and Mathew Letulu, are the subject of this tale. There are many remarkable stories from Tobruk, and it is perhaps a measure of life in 2016 - rather than 1942 - that it makes sense to single out these two men.
Yet, viewing them together, what calls for attention is more than that their skin colour pre-ordained their obscurity in the intervening years, or that they were deliberately, or casually, overlooked. Rather, it is that their stories offer telling insights not only into the social and political dimensions of the time, but the subtleties and contradictions of life in war and the impulses that activate human history.
Job Maseko is often cast as the forgotten hero. In a sense he was, but is no longer. But it has been suggested - not least by MJ Honikman in a new book, There Should Have Been Five, released only this week - that Maseko was an obvious candidate for a VC, the highest honour for gallantry, rather than the Military Medal he was given.
Until his wartime heroism - and even after it - Maseko (also, here and there, spelled Masego) was an unknown figure in an invisible majority. He was a delivery man in Springs until war broke out and he volunteered for the unarmed Native Military Corps. After basic training, he sailed north with the South African Infantry, latterly being promoted to lance corporal.
He would not have been known to more than his immediate circle until exactly a month after the fall of Tobruk. Unlike white prisoners of war, men of the Native Corps were, contrary to the Geneva Convention but without any scruple on the part of the Germans, put to work, chiefly as labourers.
In Maseko’s case, this involved loading German vessels moored in the captured port. Here, fired with whatever complicated loyalty or fury burned in him, he secretly made a bomb out of a condensed milk tin filled with cordite or gunpowder. With the help of fellow prisoners Andrew Mohudi, Sam Police and Koos Williams, he hid the device on a German cargo ship, ran a fuse from it to a hatch, lit the fuse and closed the hatch. The fully laden steamer sank - and Maseko was never found out.
In the award later made by Major-General FH Theron, there’s grandeur in the preamble of the citation: “The king has been graciously pleased to approve the following award in recognition of gallant and distinguished service in the Middle East.”
It went on: “In carrying out this deliberately planned action, Job Masego (sic) displayed ingenuity, determination and complete disregard for personal safety.”
Was he cheated of a VC? Writing in the Military History Journal in 1995, historian JS Mohlamme records that according to South Africa’s first official war artist Neville Lewis, who painted Maseko’s portrait: “Job Maseko was recommended for a Victoria Cross but, being only an African’, he had received the Military Medal instead.”
Maseko returned home not to heroic affirmation, but obscurity. And when he died after being hit by a train in 1952, his family had to borrow money to bury him.
South Africa has certainly made an effort to make it up to him since for what his citation called “meritorious and courageous action”. A primary school in KwaThema near Springs has been named after him, as well as the main road linking the two. In 1997, the South African Navy strike craft, SAS Kobie Coetzee, was renamed SAS Job Masego, along with the Simon’s Town Naval Base wardroom. The navy commissioned another portrait, by Tim Johnson.
In 2007, film director Vincent Moloi made a documentary about Maseko called A Pair of Boots and a Bicycle (the title a nod to the compensation given to returning black soldiers), and he features in history books and internet sites.
One of the imponderable things about Maseko is whether he knew his camp mate, Mathew Letulu. Mathias, as the Germans called him, is perhaps the more intriguing character, because the vicarious glamour of being the adopted batman of a dashing, highly decorated air ace attaches to him. And there was a bond between him and Rommel’s pilot aces, and a lasting affection, it turned out.
Like Maseko, Letulu was put to work - as a driver. The vehicle belonged to 3 Squadron of Jagdgeschwader - or Fighter Wing - 27 (JG 27) based at Gazala, 80km west of Tobruk. Here, Mathias soon came to the attention of the reckless, romantic Hans-Joachim Marseille, a storied personality in Rommel’s campaign, and an extraordinarily skilful fighter pilot who was lionised as the “Eagle of Africa”. He died in the African desert only months after befriending Letulu. His American biographers Colin Heaton and Anne-Marie Lewis recall in The Star of Africa that he once landed on the autobahn simply to relieve himself. Tired of his indiscipline, a superior officer had him transferred to North Africa in 1941. He thrived. His dazzling record earned him the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords, and Diamonds, and acclaim at home. But the record suggests he was no ardent Nazi.
When Marseille, a gifted pianist, was invited to perform at the home of Willy Messerschmitt (designer of the plane Marseille flew with such success), the pilot charmed his guests, including Adolf Hitler, SS head Heinrich Himmler and arch-propagandist Joseph Goebbels, with a little Beethoven, but then impishly switched to Ragtime, considered degenerate by the Nazis. It is said Hitler raised his hand and said “I think we have had enough”, and left the room.
Marseille’s friendship with Letulu was strikingly at odds with the Nazis’ racial perversions and, according to some accounts, Marseille knew it. He got fellow JG 27 pilot and Knights Cross recipient Ludwig Franzisket to promise to look after Mathias should he be shot down. On September 30, 1942, Marseille’s plane developed engine trouble and he bailed out 7km south of Sidi Abd el Rahman. But he struck the tail plane on ejecting, and fell without a parachute. It is said that when his remains were returned to base, Mathias wept.
Marseille’s death ended a brilliant 158 kill career - 151 of them with JG 27 in North Africa.
His South African associations went beyond his bond with Mathias: in the weeks before the two met, Marseille is credited with shooting down three SA Air Force pilots west of Bir-el Harmat on May 31, including Bishops’ old boy Major Andrew Duncan (who was killed), and three days later, another six SA Air Force “kills” in just 11 minutes, three of whom were high-scoring aces. One of them, Robin Pare, was killed in the combat.
After Marseille’s death, Mathias stayed with the squadron under Franzisket’s care, serving the pilot as the fighter wing moved to Tunisia, Sicily and finally Greece.
The imminent British invasion of Greece in 1944 prompted Franzisket to have him “smuggled” into one of the hastily established POW camps where he resumed his identity as Corporal Mathew Letulu, and later was liberated by the Allies without the least suspicion.
The sequel comes four decades later: when the Afrika Korps was organising its 16th reunion in Stuttgart in 1984, it came to light that Letulu was still alive. The German government invited him as a special guest and he was reunited with his old aviator friends. He is reported to have said on that occasion: “Hauptmann Marseille was a great man and a person always willing to lend a helping hand. He was always full of humour and friendly. And he was very good to me.”
Five years later, when a new plaque was placed on Marseille’s grave (he was initially buried at Derna, but later reinterred at Tobruk), Letulu was among his comrades at the ceremony.
Back in June 1942, when the Cape Argus brought news of the “Grievous S. African Loss” at Tobruk - the country’s black soldiery were all but unremarked, yet, as the record of Maseko and Letulu shows, some were more than remarkable.